The women are the guests on Hebba's TV talk show, and they run the gamut of Egyptian society, from meek murderesses to mighty media stars. The men in their lives, whether ministers or minions, are uniformly trouble for the women. That’s Scheherazade Tell Me A Story in a nutshell.
But this 2009 film by Yousry Nasrallah is more than that. Like The Yacoubian Building a few years ago, Scheherazade (the French title is, not inaccurately, Les Femmes du Caire) is a sprawling, over-long soap on the wide screen. The usual Egyptian cinematic traits – melodrama verging on the hysterical – are present. But the talents of screenwriter Wahid Hamid, who painted the string of portraits that made The Yacoubian Buiding so gripping, save this from being just another "Egyptian movie."
As does, of course, the director's fine political sense, recently revealed in a Jeune Afrique interview
For women, the problem isn't really the fondamentalists, it's with the predominant mindset that men's interests count for more than those of women. From the 1930s throught the Eighties, Egyptian cinema was centered on its actresses. Now that has changed, in large part due to Saudi financing. That's why I have always done coproductions with France.
When I showed up at the Tangier Cinémathèque, the ticket person first tried to steer me away to a free documentary showing that evening. “There aren’t any subtitles,” she said of Scheherazade, as if that were an impediment to my enjoyment of the film. I did give the documentary a try – a series of interviews with minor rockers using mobile phone cameras – but it really wasn’t for me. No subtitles? Well, I'd lived in Egypt a couple of years, and my rusty Arabic is still tinged with not a little masri... Still time to catch the beginning of Scheherazade - off I go. I wasn’t disappointed.
The film is full of attractive young Egyptians: there’s the yuppy leading couple, Hebba and her hubby, both on career tracks that appear to be onward and upward. But then the seed of fear – or is it jealousy? – makes hubby pressure his TV host wife to move away from political talking heads to the “safer” ground of a women’s talk show.
Well, if that’s what you want... Hebba gives it her best shot, and what ensues is a series of vignettes of women brought down by men, or rather women refusing to be debased by men. The ways are many: neighborhood heartthrob woos, in rapid succession, three sisters in a poor working class neighborhood. Three-timer ends up badly when the eldest sister realizes what he’s been doing.
On the other side of town, successful dentist is taken off her feet by a patient, who becomes a minister after they wed. But then Prince Charming becomes Count Dracula (or at least a Robber Baron) – inexplicably, in relatively short order. Turns out that he’s more interested in the dentist’s earnings than in earning her love.
The vignettes are maybe two too many – the film’s 134 minutes do make you want to check your watch – but there could have been many more. One, only hinted at but surely a daily ritual repeated across the world, shows a beauty in an expensive perfume boutique donning a veil to make the trek home on public transport to her shaabi neighborhood.
Which brings us to the veil. As Mona El-Naggar, Egyptian journalist, remarked in the August 10 New York Times, young women and girls in her country now wear the veil at a rate of some 89%. Peer pressure – which might also be said to be man pressure (fathers, brothers, boyfriends and spouses all expect this outward manifestation of piety/chastity/obedience) – is a powerful force. Despite the "measure of respectability," offered by the veil, El-Naggar states that it "no longer protects or prevents harassment on the street."
But remember, as Yousry Nasrallah told us, it's not only the fundamentalists - it's the men, and their all-encompassing desire to dominate. Scheherazade comes down on the side of the resisters: they may be battered, but they keep their dignity.